Covid: Making people pay for lateral flow tests will increase inequalities between rich and poor in a profound way – Dr Gwenetta Curry

In recent weeks, high levels of Covid across Scotland have exerted tremendous pressures on the NHS.

Free lateral flow tests have been a key strategy in the fight against Covid (Picture: Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)
Free lateral flow tests have been a key strategy in the fight against Covid (Picture: Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, there were 10,392 new cases and 16 deaths in Scotland. The Omicron variant has proven to be more transmissible than the previous variants but less lethal since it is resulting in fewer deaths and hospitalisations.

The lethality of Omicron could be mitigated by vaccines and wider testing, however, this is yet to seen.

Testing has been an important tool in our fight against Covid transmission. However, the government is considering getting rid of free lateral flow tests (LFT) to save money. More than £6 billion of public money has been spent on mass testing using the devices.

This test is important to continue to reduce the spread of the virus among the entire population. Once you attach a cost, there will be an increase in inequality for groups who are already vulnerable.

The data has been very clear that those who are on the lower end of the socioeconomic strata have higher infection rates than those who are on the higher socioeconomic strata.

Throughout the pandemic, the highest rates of Covid infections have been in the most deprived areas and in urban areas. For those who are already struggling financially, this creates yet another obstacle for them to protect their friends and family.

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During the festive season, families depended on the LFT to make sure their gatherings were safe for vulnerable family members and the added cost will remove this safeguard.

Essentially, adding a cost to LFTs will make entertainment and family gatherings only something the well-off can safely enjoy.

The pandemic has increased the already existing inequalities and the removal of the free tests would limit the safe interaction in society. A higher share of poor workers are in precarious, hourly paid employment, making them less able to access social security, health insurance and emergency benefits that could cushion the decline in income and the effect of Covid on their lives.

The importance of the LFT is that it ensures people can return to work and participate in events with the comfort of not passing on the virus to their co-workers and friends.

Efforts to increase vaccination rates have continued, with over four million people having received two doses of the vaccine and over three million having received their booster.

Vaccinations and wearing masks are only parts of the effort to reduce the spread of the virus; testing must continue to be another.

Free tests are also crucial to ensure schools remain safe for teachers and students. In the United States, as of December 5, 4.8 million children had received at least one dose of Covid vaccine. In the UK, children younger than 12 are not allowed access to the vaccine so the LFT will help to reduce the spread of the virus in primary schools.

For lateral flow testing to continue to effectively be used to help kids to safely return to school and parents to work, they need to remain free and accessible to everyone.

Once a price is attached, there could possibly be major increases of Covid infections among groups who can not afford to purchase the testing kits.

Dr Gwenetta Curry is an Edinburgh University lecturer on race, ethnicity and health

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